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November 23, 2015

Stevanovich Institute announces courses for winter and spring

The Stevanovich Institute for the Formation of Knowledge, opened earlier this year, will begin offering its first courses in early 2016.

The Institute’s goal is to study how individuals accumulate, standardize, and transfer knowledge, and how new disciplines emerge from old ones. The Institute plans to study the development of knowledge from antiquity to the present day by uniting academics from all fields.

One of the Institute’s more specific focuses will be studying how knowledge is transformed over time, from informal traditions to increasingly uniform practices. “You might think about the development of Hippocratic medicine: in the early period, fifth century B.C.E. Greece, a few people who practiced medicine had similar doctrines, similar attitudes, and made common observations. You might say that what they were doing was transforming what were non-systematic folk ideas about healing and disease into a much more systematic form,” said Professor Robert J. Richards, a member of the Institute’s executive committee.

The Institute’s first new course will consist of four to six case studies spread across two quarters, covering topics that will change annually. These will be “team-taught” by at least two professors from different departments.

The first quarter will discuss claims about scientific knowledge, the epistemology of democracy, and the concept of progress. The second will focus on the foundations of psychology in Linguistics and Biology, the origins of the social construction of knowledge, and the politics of philosophical knowledge, according to Professor Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, the Institute’s faculty director.

The Institute views the method of analyzing many narrower case studies as vital in accomplishing its ambitious goals. “I think you approach this enormous topic not by trying to do the whole of knowledge. You approach test cases that bring you to thinking about knowledge more globally, but cause you to start in specific instances. It might be the relationship between eastern medicine in the fifth century B.C.E., and western medicine in the fifth century B.C.E. By over time developing courses like this, as one stands back, you’ll see larger patterns such that we can make statements about the nature of knowledge at its core,” Richards said.

In many ways, the Institute represents not only the core values of UChicago’s main ethos, but also those of the liberal arts as a whole.

“We wanted to provide a strong defense to the current challenge to the liberal arts.  The liberal arts are the context in which one is taught sensitivity to historical and social context, to the shifting relations between ideology and practice, elite thought and popular culture; and as such they are supremely important to an understanding of our individual and social place in the world,” Bartsch said.

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